During this October’s visit to Exeter we finally managed to find the time to visit one of the towns most unique attractions: the underground passages. I’d visited them once before with my school, but that was more than three decades ago and they’ve considerably improved the visitor experience since then, adding a great deal of information and illustration to the entrance area to set the scene.
These are the only publicly-accessible medieval passages in Britain, built in the 14th century and stretching for over 400 metres right under the centre of the city. Created to house lead pipes bringing clean water from a spring just north of the centre in Sidwell down to the cathedral area, they weren’t dug as traditional tunnels, but constructed using the “cut and cover” method, which means digging a ditch and then covering it with vaulted brickwork. What this means is that the tunnels actually lie very close to the surface, and in fact at certain points of the tour underground if you listen carefully you can hear the traffic and shoppers above you. The height of the tunnels varies from a couple of metres to just over one, so it’s a slightly uncomfortable half hour for those of above average height like myself. But it’s definitely worth a look as a fascinating historical relic.
When we visited they were giving special Halloween-themed tours, which meant that instead of the usual historical explanations they instead told the kids “Gory Stories”. These were still related to the tunnels and their history, but emphasising the icky parts, Horrible Histories-style. Beheadings, eye-gougings, and graphic details of plague symptoms were all lingered over in loving detail.
Photography wasn’t really practical down there, so you’ll have to make do with this brief video to give you some idea of what it’s like.
You can find a little more information and history here.